Shapiro: California shippers to Lecomte, Smarty Jones face tall task

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TwinSpires Staff

January 12th, 2018

by Scott Shapiro

The Road to the Kentucky Derby heats up this weekend as the Lecomte (G3) on Saturday at Fair Grounds and Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park on Monday each offer the winner 10 qualifying points as connections start to set their sights on the 2018 “Run for the Roses.”

The two-turn events for three-year-olds are largely comprised of runners from other regions, but both fields drew a West Coast invader from a top barn in search of a victory that could propel them toward a spot at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

I was surprised when I discovered that Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was sending $1.05 million purchase Instilled Regard to Louisiana to compete in the Lecomte. The “Dorf” has had plenty of success with domestic shippers throughout his career, but he has only had one horse race at Fair Grounds over the past five years (Point Piper in the 2016 Mineshaft.)

When I dove into the past performances I was even more puzzled since it was not as if the Lecomte represented an easy opportunity for qualifying points on the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” leaderboard.

The son of Arch ran pretty well sprinting to start his racing career this September, but has been a new horse since stretching out to a route of ground. He easily handled an ordinary field of maidens at Santa Anita in late October and followed it up with an impressive runner-up effort when moved up from third to second through disqualification in the Los Alamitos Derby (G1) on December 9.

I have a great deal of respect for the Kentucky-bred colt and Hollendorfer, evidenced by ranking him eighth in my current Derby Top 10, but he faces a tall task on Saturday.

Not only does he race away from home for the initial time, but he meets a tough group from top to bottom that includes 5-2-morning-line favorite Principe Guilherme, hard-knocking Kowboy Karma, and several others that are in with significant chances to spring the upset.

The presence of Javier Castellano, as well as his effort in his first start against graded stakes competition, give reason for optimism, but I will demand more value than I expect to get in the Lecomte on Instilled Regard.

Less shocking was the presence of a Bob Baffert trainee entered in the Smarty Jones on Monday at Oaklawn Park. The four–time Kentucky Derby (G1)-winning conditioner has never won the race that was first contested in 2008, but has used the Arkansas three-year-old prep races in the past, most notably with 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

Baffert ships Mourinho out for the Smarty Jones after scratching him last weekend from the Sham Stakes (G3), which was won by his stablemate McKinzie.

Mourinho has never finished worse than second in three races to start his career. The Phoenix Thoroughbred colt’s runner-up efforts in the Speakeasy at Santa Anita in October and Bob Hope (G3) at Del Mar in November illustrate the son of Super Saver’s talent, but I have major concerns about his ability to get two turns.

The Smarty Jones definitely came up weaker than the Lecomte, so it is unlikely that Mourinho will not accrue qualifying points, but I am unwilling to endorse him at a route of ground until he proves he can do so.  If he is able to make an easy early lead he could carry his speed all the way, but I give Combatant and Navistar big shots to beat the $625,000 OBS March 2017 purchase.

I am not going to gamble on either of the Southern California shippers in their first trip out of town this weekend, but am looking forward to seeing how both stack up against colts from other regions. Instilled Regard has a chance to springboard up my Kentucky Derby Top 10 with a big effort, while Mourinho has a lot more to prove to me if he wants to be considered a legitimate threat to get the mile and a quarter in four months.